Two weekends ago I got to take my fourth class with Mandy Aftel at her studio in Berkeley, CA. It was once again time to revisit the “The Room of Many Bottles Full of Good Smells”. After the class was over I had time for reflection; which during the class one generally doesn’t; there is a lot happening and a limited amount of time to do it all in. It is an interesting paradox to say the least. The class tends to be divided up into Mandy speaking on various topics and actual cord or perfume making. The commentary from Mandy is really insightful and comes from many years of being in the busness and art of perfume making. I think the comment that really struck me was “Making perfume is the art of learning to create something beautiful” There are many different levels to this seemingly simple statement and they might depend on culture, personal preferences and artistic inclinations. Perfume is generally something that one wants either on their bodies or in the environment nearby. It should invoke an emotion and mindset that is [usually] pleasurable and perhaps leads to other actions. Most of us wear perfumes or colognes because we want to attract others attention in a positive way, which the larger perfume makers spend an exorbitant amount of money on to convince us will indeed happen by wearing their products.
Making “something beautiful” is not an easy undertaking in the world of perfumery, there is a very step learning curve and a constant and never ending educational process that is always happening for any professional perfumer I have meet or read about. During the weekend Mandy pulled out a box of scent tests she had done, it was one box of a large collection and I have a feeling every time a new material from a different supplier or a new batch from the same supplier comes in; guess what? Retesting commences soon after opening that wonderful new flask of rose, neroli or whatever because they are naturals and there are changes between each and every batch. To really work with scent you need to lay down a mental map of the different odors of the materials you work with as well as how they interact with each other. This is a huge but very necessary endeavor. Much of the perfume making process happens in a perfumers mind, deciding on the starting two or three materials that you want to work around and maybe how they could work together and perhaps a theme or inspiration that incorporates them.
A structured approach to the creation process is also very necessary to have mastered and hold to, this is something Mandy talked about quite a lot. Without structure it becomes a free for all and you end up with a muddy mess and no idea where it went wrong. It also takes some real self-harnessing, or as Mandy said “Ask yourself why you are going to put something in.” The wrong answer is “because it’s beautiful”, better would be “because it will give the texture (or whatever other quality you need here) to the scent I am looking for”. It is very obvious from watching her at work how dedicated she is to her art, and the countless hours that go into it to make it work in a seemingly effortless way. It is quite fun to watch how passionate she is about what she does all the way through sourcing the materials, putting a scent together, figuring out the packaging and then being able to pass it on to others. A great series to look at to see some of this is at Nathan Branch’s blog. It gives one a very rare look at the actual thinking process involved with two different perfumers (in this case Mandy and Dawn Spencer Hurwitz), there are a number of these pieces on his blog and they are priceless for their insight of some of the best in the perfume business.
This brings up another aspect to this profession that people tend to overlook, which is; you will end up throwing out a huge amount of tests, hopeful attempts and outright mistakes that just didn’t work. I think this is pretty true of any artistic undertaking, I distinctly remember a lot of load yelling and cursing from my glass blowing days as I ever so craftily made a mistake on the chemistry of a large batch of glass any number of times (damn that Happy Hour the night before). It is simply an aspect of the business that you accept going into it. But most people never look at this when they start thinking about being a perfumer. It is by no means a warm and fuzzy moment when you are smelling, say test number twenty or so, and realize it is just not going to work and you simply dump ( between that on and it’s nineteen buddies) a small fortune down the drain.
The great thing about the class setting is that there are many people there of like mind, who have some idea of what is going on and you get to bounce ideas off each other and learn from each others success’s and mistakes. You also get to use pretty much all the assorted materials that Mandy has collected over the years. It is also a great opportunity to work outside your comfort zone and receive meaningful suggestions on how to solve problems you might run up against. It also lets you shift mental gears from your regular world and keeps your thinking flexible and opens up new possibilities for ideas that were not seemingly there before. Last but not least, it is great fun. There is also a lot of laughter and comradely, which is a good thing and not to be overlooked.
OK, its time now to go check on the progress of test number twenty one, hope springs eternal! –Ross